How I Taught Myself to Write a Novel

night road
E.L. Doctorow famously compared writing a novel to driving a car. “You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

My first book, The Circus in Winter, a novel-in-stories, was written over the course of twelve years-one story at a time-and thus provides a wide-ranging experience as the reader observes me trying on different aesthetic approaches. There was one narrative hurdle, however, that I couldn’t seem to surmount: sustaining a plot for more than 25 pages. The book contains many big, maximalist stories that span large spans of time, even multiple generations, but I always compressed them until they fit into the short story form.

When I published the book in 2004, the inevitable questions arose: Why is that story a story and not a novel? What are you working on now? And please say it’s a novel, right? I resented this insistence on novel, novel, novel until I asked myself why I felt so much disdain for the form and for its fans. People who love to read-myself included-love being “inside” a story for three days or three weeks, entering John Gardner’s vivid and continuous fictional dream. Certainly this kind of loving is what brings most of us to writing fiction in the first place: the desire to create a reading experience that we ourselves value. As much as I enjoy the 30-minute thrill of short stories, I was raised on novels. I spent my youth living inside them, a perfectly normal dissociative state that allowed me to blessedly not be me for short periods of time. I think most writers are familiar with this condition, and it’s one of reasons we like losing ourselves in stories-those we read and those we write.

Everyone seemed to want me to grow up and write a novel. I had an idea for one, but to be perfectly frank, I had no idea how to do more than write a short story. Then I happened upon an interview by Karin Lin-Greenberg (who would, one year later, become a student of mine at the University of Pittsburgh!) with fiction writer Dan Chaon. I’d long admired his short stories, but he’d recently published his first novel, You Remind Me of Me. How did he move from story to novel, I wondered.

Chaon said, “This seems simple-minded, but the architecture of a novel is really important. In some ways, with a short story, when you’re writing it, you can just feel your way. It’s like being in a house in the dark and you can find the walls and you can figure out where you’re going-If a short story is like being in a darkened room, then a novel is like being in a darkened field-it was a process of finding the architecture of the novel before I even knew what was going to happen in it. The process of finding a story is more intuitive for me.”

These comments resonated strongly with me. Maybe writing a novel necessitates that you know more up front-the big picture, the shape, the arc, maybe even the rough plot-unlike writing short stories, where you are strongly encouraged not to know too much.

E.L. Doctorow famously compared writing a novel to driving a car. “You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” True for some, perhaps, but I’m one of those map loving, visual memory people who drives with at least a hazy picture of the route in her head. In writing and in life, I tend not to do well in the face of uncertainty, so, as I moved from story to book, I looked for an already mapped narrative route.

For me, the answer was to write a nonfiction novel.

Instead of wondering fearfully what would happen past page 25, I started with an already lived plot, the architectural bones around which I shaped a novel-length reading experience. I embarked on my next book project in the investigative mode of documentarian-accumulating 350+ pages of very raw material/journaling/”footage” over the course of a year, followed by an intense six-months in the editing booth/at the word processor. (I can’t tell you the joy I felt inside when I saw numbers like “52” and “173” appear in the top right corner of my document.) Then, I spent a few more months on final edits, and boom, I’d written a book in two years. This was Comeback Season, a book that didn’t do well, really, but from which I learned a great deal.

Twelve years spent trying to write one perfect sentence after another, one perfect story after another, vs. two years spent (first!) writing a really shitty first draft, followed by (second!) revising that shittiness, and (third!) editing, tweaking, cutting, clarifying, controlling, polishing that shitty draft into a shiny new book of which I am extremely proud.

Next time: the first in the series, “This is How You Do It.”*

*”It” = better encourage and accommodate big projects within a semester, within a busy life.